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ESPN’s Week in Whiteness: Why White Fans Dislike Athletes of Color by Charles Modiano (Participation)

February 15, 2012

What does the article below teach us about race, gender, and privilege?  what are the lessons here beyond the realm of sport?

Cross posted from POPSspot

ESPN’s Week in Whiteness:

Why White Fans Dislike Athletes of Color

By On February 10, 2012

Forbes came out with its poll this week on sports most-disliked players, and the names ring familiar. In order, they are Mr. Vick, Tiger, Plaxico, NDamukong, Kris Humphries, Lebron, Kobe, Terrell, ARod, before Kurt Busch comes in at #10. Quite notably, Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky [1], Ben Roethlisberger (accused twice of rape), and the allegedly “polarizing” Tim Tebow didn’t crack the top 10.

These types of polls are almost always dominated by white voters, and the “most disliked” people are almost always dominated by athletes of color. While there is disturbing bigotry inherent in these lists, media plays a critical role in perpetuating and maintaining views of white fans [2].

This past week offers an excellent illustration of white privilege in action. Here is a quick recap on some of what you might have missed amidst Super Bowl week.

Feb. 1: Kevin Love Hacks Danny Granger and Talks Big-time Trash to Pacers
Feb. 2: Josh Hamilton Relapses
Feb. 3: Lance Armstrong Walks as his Federal Case is Dismissed
Feb. 3: Cardinals Announcer Joe McLaughlin – Repeat DUI Arrestee — Keeps Job
Feb. 4: Kevin Love Stomps on Face of Luis Scola after throwing him to floor
Feb. 5: Super Bowl Sunday – Congrats Giants! Manning-to-Manningham!
Feb. 6: Rob Gronkowski Dances Night Away After Super Bowl Loss
Feb. 7: George Brett Has Lawsuit filed against him for false advertising
Feb. 7: Kevin Again: Suspended Two Games (and finally receives own ESPN article)
Feb. 7: Lance Again: WADA Urges Feds to Hand Over Evidence

Some of the stories were purposely delayed to coincide with Super Bowl week, and in the previous 10 days in January Ben Roethlisberger very quietly settled on his rape case, Ryan Braun made an MVP award speech, and Dirk Nowitzki sat out games due to poor conditioning while all came with little national media hype.

With the exception of announcer McLaughlin – whose DUI continues a long Cardinals narrative – all are stand-out all-stars. With the possible exception of Josh Hamilton’s relapse (note: POPSspot wishes Josh the very best with his continued recovery), just about every story [3] mentioned was either ignored, buried on website, or downplayed by ESPN judging by black athlete standards.

What are “black athlete standards”? On Tuesday, ESPN “sauced” up a front-page DUI story on a 3rd string running back. On Thursday, a retired average pitcher received front-page treatment for his heavy cocaine use 25 years ago. In between, “Kendrick Perkins rips Lebron” over innocuous tweet, “Lebron Won’t Apologize for Tweet” while both ESPN stories received: prime web-link placement, video commentary, and front-page “staying power” that helped produce 5000+ comments for each article. And that’s just the last three days.

Now back to the white guys. The stories of Armstrong, Roethlisberger, and Love deserve a closer look:

1) Lance Armstrong Federal Case is Dismissed and Legacy Endures:

Outside of owners, Lance may be the most powerful man in sports today.  There is more evidence of Lance’s doping than Bonds, Clemens, and Hulk Hogan combined. Yet his federal case is dismissed. Says Betsy Andreu one of many, many accusers:

“Our legal system failed us. This is what happens when you have a lot of money and you can buy attorneys who have people in high places in the Department of Justice.”

Our sports media has also failed us with over 12 years of allegations against Armstrong being ignored. Now Armstrong “luckily” got the news announced on the Friday afternoon before Super Bowl Sunday. opens up with the news: “Los Angeles — The case against Lance Armstrong is closed. His legacy as a seven-time Tour de France champion endures.”

Really? Is Lance’s legacy is tied to his federal case? Was ESPN, AP, Sports Illustrated or anyone else patiently awaiting court verdicts before deciding if Bonds legacy and his 762 home runs “endured”? Lance’s multi-layered power over (American, not European) sports media deserves its own article if not book (in America, not Europe). On Tuesday, ESPN’s story read: “WADA: Turn Over Lance Armstrong Info”. Another important story, but AP reprint was buried on website (note only 9 comments). USA Today has a better take.

While ideally, no doping athlete should be subject to a federal investigation, Bonds 7-year federal pursuit changed those rules. While hundreds of millions might protect any athlete from media, the media pursuit of Tiger Woods changed those rules. While Lance’s work on behalf of cancer patients is important and laudable, off-the-field contributions has never protected an athlete of color) from media (see Tiger again, Stephon Marbury, and NDamukong Suh. Lance is not protected solely by green or white – he is protected by the intertwined and exponential power of both.

2) ESPN is STILL Protecting Ben Roethlisberger:

In 2008, ESPN famously did not report the civil suit alleging rape against Ben Roethlisberger for 2.5 days. The omission was so egregious that the rest of sports media, both mainstream and blogs, took notice and charged both corporate influence and racial bias. Well 2.5 years later, ESPN’s protection of Ben remains. In virtually every website on January 20th, the story’s title read: “Ben Roethlisberger Settles Lawsuit Alleging 2008 Rape” 

Do you see that last word “rape”? ESPN changed the title to: Ben Roethlisberger Lawsuit Settled”. A closer and longer look at both separate rape allegations against Roethlisberger will show that removing “the R word” is a common practice for ESPN and Ben, but most definitely not Lawrence Taylor! ESPN has repeatedly removed “the R word” from title for over two years.


3) ESPN Loves Kevin:

Love did more than just tweet this week. Love hacked Danny Granger and talked made-for-ESPN trash afterwards. Days later, Love threw Luis Scola to the ground, and stomped on his face (not arm like NDamukong Suh). Neither incidents garnered articles beyond game recaps. Thanks to Commissioner David Stern’s 2-game suspension, ESPN was finally forced to cover Love with a standard AP article on the suspension. ESPN’s only additional article was “Short Fuses in Shortened NBA Season” where the picture caption reads:

“Kevin Love doesn’t lack for passion. In a compressed season, that can result in some unwise explosions”.

Author Mark Kreidler goes on:

“[Love] won’t be the last to lose it on the court in this weird NBA experiment: Take the most competitive players in the world, deny them adequate training time, put them into ridiculous travel schedules, cram 66 games into 123 days, and see what happens.”

Beyond two disclaimer sentences, it was the tough intense schedule that led Love to his “series of tantrums”. Did you get that Mr. Suh and Ms. Serena Williams? ESPN offered no companion articles on the usual cadre of “personal responsibility”, “what about the kids” or “what kind of message does this send” memes. For more in-depth media analysis, or doubt about the intentionality of Love’s stomp, please read David Leonard’s: Silence, Innocence, and Whiteness: The Undemonization of Kevin Love.

The protection of Armstrong, Roethlisberger, and Love only scratch the surface of white privilege in sports media. When day after day, a massive sports media says that the courts of law should decide Lance’s legacy, that black tweets trump white stomps, and that Lebron’s “decisions” are worse than Big Ben’s – too many white fans will actually believe it.

Ideally, the solution is not for media to treat white players like athletes of color it is to treat all athletes as if they were white. But until that day comes, let there be one standard.


[1] On Paterno/Sandusky: Forbes article mentions that owners were eligible for list, so we also assume coaches as has been the case in the past.

[2] Views of “white” fans are singled out for two reasons. White always make up the vast majority of fans polled. Also, a 2011 ESPN poll shows that only 28% of white sports fans believe that “the media put more of a spotlight on problems involving black athletes”. That same poll showed that 65% of African-American fan believed that problems of black athletes received a greater media spotlight.

[3]  Unlike USA Today, original Gronkowski dancing story received no ESPN article (it did only after Rodney Harrison responded). McLaughlin story was never printed by ESPN or AP. George Brett AP story was buried in ESPN webspace.


From → Participation

  1. Katie Nelson permalink

    I agree with this article in some respects. It is true that media coverage is in favor of white athletes but I prefer to think that Lebron or Tiger or Kobe are in the news even more due to their athletic achievements and wide fan base. Sandusky and Paterno both appear in the news frequently, even today, and I think that’s due to their large fan base and long history of fans. Although, I do believe that generally the media favors whites, and unconsciously subjects people of color to different standards. As you mentioned in class yesterday, Jeremy Lin was in the news a lot because he was Asian, but if this was any other player (of any other race) he wouldn’t have been in the news as much.

  2. Michael Anderson permalink

    I don’t think I agree with the parts of the article about the top 10 most hated athletes and how it argues that most of the hated athletes are black because polls are dominated by whites. I feel these stats can be very misleading due to the popularity of most athletes on the list. The athletes on this list are so well known it is a given that they will have the most fans that hate them as well as the most fans that like them. According to the annual Harris Poll of the most popular athletes, in 2011 both Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant were also on the most popular athlete list. Only three of the most popular athletes were white. The most famous athletes are going to have a lot of people that hate them simply because these athletes are the most well known. Also, the article states that it was surprising that Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky did not make the list of most hated players. Last time I checked, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky are coaches…

    • He notes in the article why he mentions Paterno and Sandusky – “[1] On Paterno/Sandusky: Forbes article mentions that owners were eligible for list, so we also assume coaches as has been the case in the past.”

      I think you raise an important point regarding the complexity of popularity versus dislike (I actually had the title wrong), visibility versus invisibility. I think he is talking more about how race impacts how “mistakes” and errors are viewed/treated by the media and how media narrative impacts fan polls

  3. Aaron Verhei permalink

    I will agree with the fact that media likes to cover more white athletes over colored one but i do not agree with this article. when it comes to talking about Lance and his amazing record that he has in the cycling world i don’t think any media was trying to cover up anything in that regard to the case about him doping. The cycling world is never on any of the main sports channels anyway and if you want to know anything about it you have to research. When it comes to Ben rape case i believe that they gave just as much air time to it as they did to Kobe accident he had which was very similar. I dont think ESPN is covering for the white athletes they just are trying to protect the athletes in general. The way it seems media works is that if you are a sports star the minute you do one thing wrong it is all over the news. All the most popular athletes are mostly color. I don’t believe that white fans like to hate colored athletes. Fans base how they like athletes based on their performance on and off the field.

  4. Can all of the things you note be true along with the arguments of the article? What does this article say to add to the conversation –

  5. Tucker Creek permalink

    Most of the top 10 hated athletes are all very big sport figures and superstars in there own sport meaning that they get a lot of attention most of the time, therefore a lot of criticism and judgement. You can attribute the Lebron hate due to his “Decision” when he left Cleveland to play with Wade and Bosh in Miami, ever since then there was gonna be no way Lebron was gonna be well-liked. Michael Vick however went to jail for hosting a dog fighting ring and people are never going to forget that because everyone loves dogs and animals and making them fight is cruel and unacceptable. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife and Kobe was accused of rape too but got acquitted. However I think that all this hate is derived from jealousy and seeing them in everyday headlines in the sport world, especially in big markets like LA there are gonna be people who don’t like them because of there status. People take sports very seriously and when they are rivals against those big names like Lebron, Kobe, Suh, and Arod there is no way they will like them. Compared to the Kevin Love headline those incidences were close to the release of that study so I think the study happened before those incidences meaning he was perceived as still a hard working white basketball player. But giving those instances I think he would be somewhere in the top 15 hated list.

  6. But how does white privilege fit here? How do stereotypes? Yes, there are multitude of factors, but how does privilege and stereotypes operate as well?

  7. Jackson Scalzo permalink

    I do not agree with the article’s statements that white fans dislike athletes of color. In the articles argument it describes three stories of white athletics which the article believes should have been published instead of what did get headlined. In the stories listed two of the three of them the results of the cases were dismissed, I think generally the stories published by the media are stories with negative results. I assume the writers would leave majority of stories at rest once they are acquitted. The article also contradicts itself when saying Kevin love’s outbreak should have been published since it asks reasons why fights in other sports are not published. I guess this statement is evidence of white privilege in basketball. I believe the NBA and NFL have a higher number of young, tuned in fans which is why those stories are talked about more, however the MLB has an enormous population of Latinos, not even American Latinos so stories in the MLB not getting posted is not an accurate example of white people disliking athletes of color. This could be an example against African Americans though. The last link shows evidence of stereotypes in the media when it talked about automatically believing the black athlete was guilty of murder, but the white athlete was not. This stereotype of African American athletes being naturally more violent contributes to the reasons of their cases being talked about more in belief that “naturally” convictions will follow.

    • Let me add a crucial point: I think the article is not saying all fans, or all white fans dislike athletes of color. What the author is arguing that the level of dislike this is evident in “Q” scores comes from media coverage that focuses on missed-steps, criminal misconduct, and other allegations against black athletes in ways very distinct from white athletes. This an issue sports as well in terms of how the media frames issues

  8. Olivia Newhouse permalink

    What surprised me about this article is it seems as if white supremacy is even evident by this poll. Even though some white athletes have been charged for rape, as show above, those stories seem to slip through the media’s cracks. But when an athlete of color does anything wrong it is blown up for everyone to see. I think this shows white supremacy and how when the media doesn’t chose what to put in magazines or tabloids but how severe of a story is, but more by the color of the athletes skin.

  9. Kyla Chappell permalink

    Surprisingly, this article did not surprise me. I have not noticed this privilege myself, but that is because I do not keep up with sports very closely. But I can remember the most popular stories, Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryants cases, both of these mean being colored. I don’t remember hearing anything about any of these other stories. But even though I havent heard them doesn’t mean they are not on the news, but I do not doubt that stories of white athletes and their mistakes are getting less coverage than that of a black person. Of course this is unfair, but this is how our media is. Same goes for popularity, you don’t hear of every domestic dispute or abuse, but majority of people can remember hearing about Chris Brown and Rhianna’s situation.

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